Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Depicting Division, Part IV: Love Him or Hate Him

Love him or hate him--that aptly describes Bahrainis' relationship with the country's Prime Minister, Sh. Khalifah bin Salman. Of course, when you've been in power since Richard Nixon was president, you have no lack of time to garner supporters and detractors.

The longest-reigning unelected prime minister in the world today, he is said to be the wealthiest (and, depending on whom one talks to, the most powerful) member of the Al Khalifa, having to his name the large island of Jiddah north of the Saudi Causeway (see below, via Google Earth; looks pretty nice, right?) and, by all accounts, the prominent Bahraini dailies Al-Bilad and Akhbar al-Khalij. One memorable respondent to my survey called him "Mr. Guinness" for his place in the Guinness World Records, another "Mr. 50-50" for his presumed cut of the national revenues.

However the case, more than any other state institution the prime ministership represents for many Bahrainis the lack of fundamental political change, the persistence and immutability of the political status quo, in spite of the apparent reforms and improvements introduced over the previous 40 years. And, accordingly, no other figure in Bahrain elicits as much political polarization.

When the Bahraini opposition demanded several weeks ago that the prime minister step down as one of its preconditions for dialogue, for example, an anonymous online poll asking Bahrainis whether he should leave racked up more than 40,000 votes, which, assuming all who took part were Bahrainis, amounts to some 7% of the entire citizen population (the poll, to be clear, was not my doing). The responses, interestingly, are split nearly down the middle--with 53% in favor and 47% against. But are we safe in assuming that they tend to fall mostly along Sunni-Shi'i lines?

Let's see what my Bahrain survey results might tell us. The exact question as posed to respondents is the following: “I am going to name a group of institutions, and I would like you to tell me to what extent you trust in each of these institutions: / 1. The prime ministership (the prime [minister] and the [cabinet] ministers).” In Figure 5.49 below we find the familiar graph of the frequency of responses disaggregated by ethnicity. We see that even compared to the considerable ethnic polarization witnessed in my previous post of trust in political institutions, here there is still less within-group variation in response: 60% of Sunni respondents (a full 67% of valid responses) report “a great degree” of trust in the prime ministership, while 55% of Shi‘a (68% if we exclude refusals and “unsure” responses) say that they have “none at all” (“لا أثق بها علی الإطلاق”). The discrepancy in the last two proportions is a testament to the sensitivity of this question particularly among Shi‘a (a full 13% refused to answer), several of whom joked with more or less seriousness that we were trying to get them thrown in jail. It is indeed no stretch to say that of the entire survey this is the most politically-sensitive question asked, and for a time there was debate whether it could be asked at all.

Sensitivity notwithstanding, however, the graph above speaks for itself. When it comes to the PM, Bahrainis either love him or hate him--or rather, trust him totally or don't trust him at all. And the group into which one falls is not determined randomly!

Just compare this photo from the Sunni-frequented Kingdom of Bahrain forum:
(The translation is: "We will protect national unity, but we will not say, 'Let bygones be bygones'"--a well-known quote of the PM, and a timely one indeed.)

... to these from a popular Shi'a opposition forum:

Enough said.


  1. The Sunnis hate him too. They are just scared to say it because they have more to lose (the Shia are given nothing, so have nothing to lose). Don't you think a good social scientist should take the (authoritarian, state sectarian) context into account when conducting and interpreting surveys? I do.

  2. More to the point, it is political acceptable for the Shia to hate the PM, no one expects them to feel otherwise, but it is not politically acceptable for the Sunni to do so. If you can't understand how the regime rules, how can you interpret anything correctly? Get the context straight. Then interpret. This is basic social science.

  3. Thanks for your comments.

    As I've said elsewhere, though, my substantive interpretation (or rather the focus of my interpretation) may make more sense in the context of the larger topic of my dissertation, which is the prevailing rentier theory of politics in the Arab Gulf. As I'm sure you know, this theory posits an individual-level relationship between personal economy and government support--i.e., that individuals who are personally well-off are "bought off" so to speak politically. My project in Bahrain, then, is not so much a study of Bahrain per se but the notion that in rent-based economies individuals are easily pacified politically simply on a material basis.

    Whether or not you think the average Sunni "really" distrusts the PM any more than the average Shi'i, then, the fact that their individual orientations (or willingness to represent them) are altered by society's larger ethnic conflict is precisely the point: in Bahrain and elsewhere throughout the Arab Gulf, political calculations on the individual level are not driven by subject-regime clientelism merely but by one's ethnically-defined position in society. Bahrian qua rentier state does not distribute state benefits in a politically-agnostic way; hence ethnic group membership itself becomes a viable focal point for political coordination.

  4. If you take the "ah" out of Bahrain, you're left with something the regime seems to be seriously lacking!

  5. More generally, if it's true that there is indeed no trust on either side for the PM, who are these 19,000+ individuals who took the time to vote in an anonymous online poll to the effect that he should not resign? You can write the huge pro-government rallies at the al-Fatih Mosque as more "politically acceptable" behavior, but obviously in the former case this cannot play a role.

    The point is that in Bahrain today ethnicity has become a proxy for the extent to which one supports (tends to gain from) or opposes (tends not to gain from) the socio-political status quo. Most Shi'a oppose the regime on principle insofar as they are outsiders looking in; Sunnis support the government on principle, in order, as 'Adel al-Ma'awdah said in attempting to spur Sunnis to the polls in 2002, "to counter probable harm" that would come from not acting.

  6. Sorry i said that thing about your using us to make your name. obviously it's a tense time. i don't know you and you may be a nice guy. just think about the consequences of your knowledge production and the field of US academia from which you work. please. thanks.

  7. Btw, what do you mean by ethnicity? Do you mean race? Sunni and Shia are not ethnicities. They are sects.

  8. I understand that. I use ethnicity as a more generic term in preference over the word 'sect', whose connotations of religious heresy some people reject.

  9. I'm so grateful you're blogging. This is the best source on Bahrain by far (followed by Jadaliyya).